Escalation 2

Vietnam also served as a laboratory for technology so sophisticated as to make James Bond’s dazzling gadgets seem obsolete by compar¬ison. American scientists created an array of ultrasensitive devices to detect the enemy through heat, light and sound refraction, and they even invented an electronic instrument that could smell guerrillas. They produced defoliants and herbicides to destroy jungles and wipe out rice and other crops on which the North Vietnamese and Vietcong relied for food. They perfected rockets like the “Walleye,” an air-to- surface missile containing a television camera that enabled a pilot to adjust its course by scanning a screen in his cockpit. And there were bombs of nearly every size, shape and explosive intensity, from block-busters to phosphorous and napalm bombs that roasted their victims alive. Another devastating weapon were cluster bombs, whose hundreds of pellets burst out at high velocity to rip deep into the body of anyone within range. Designed for “surgical” raids against troop concentrations, the cluster bombs were frequently dropped by Amer¬ican aircraft on populated regions in both North and South Vietnam, killing or maiming thousands of civilians. General Harold K. Johnson, army chief of staff, once attributed the indiscriminate casualties to a lack of precise intelligence about targets. “We have not enough in¬formation,” he said. “We act with ruthlessness, like a steamroller.” Along with importing guns and ammunition, oil, spare parts and other war materiel, Westmoreland and his logistical experts inundated Vietnam with the luxuries that have become necessities for U.S. forces far from home. Not only could American soldiers isolated on remote hilltop fire bases or in jungle camps look forward to receiving ciga¬rettes and beer by helicopter, but choppers periodically flew in hot meals—and the menu at Thanksgiving and Christmas featured turkey, cranberry sauce and candied yams. Those in the rear echelons pa¬tronized clubs and snack bars and that unique U.S. military institution, the post exchange. The main PX, located in the Saigon suburb of Cholon, was only slightly smaller than the New York Bloomingdale’s, its counters laden with everything from sports clothes, cameras, tape recorders and transistor radios to soap, shampoo, deodorant and, of course, condoms. A GI finishing his tour in Vietnam could purchase an automobile or motorcycle for delivery back in the United States, and he might even be solicited by the representatives of Wall Street brokerage firms that had set up offices in Saigon to buy and sell stocks. The great American cornucopia inevitably spilled its wares into the local economy, and the streets of Saigon and other South Vietnamese cities were jammed with black markets that served, in effect, as a parallel PX—and they often hawked articles that were unavailable at the real PX.
All this power initially intoxicated the Americans in Vietnam with a proud and overweening sense of confidence. Whatever the objective of the war—and many could not define its purpose with any preci¬sion—they were certain that U.S. omnipotence would triumph. Philip Caputo, then a young marine lieutenant, recalled the feeling that he and his buddies shared as their battalion splashed ashore at Danang in the spring of 1965: “When we marched into the rice paddies on that damp March afternoon, we carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit convictions that the Vietcong would be quickly beaten.”
Yet they—and the U.S. public—began to realize that the challenge was not so simple. The seemingly straightforward conflict soon de¬generated into a protracted, exhausting, indecisive war of attrition that increasingly appeared to be futile. President Johnson nevertheless per¬sisted with expressions of determination and optimism—and U.S. troops continued to fight and die as the war generated its own mo¬mentum. As the struggle lengthened, America’s faith in its invinci¬bility faded. As Caputo, mirroring the mood of U.S. soldiers in the field, added: “We kept the packs and rifles; the convictions, we lost.”
At one point in the war, after U.S. aircraft had reduced a South Vietnamese province capital to rubble, an American army officer was quoted as explaining that “we had to destroy the town in order to save it.” His remark accurately described the impact on Vietnam of the massive U.S. intervention. The United States, motivated by the loftiest intentions, did indeed tear South Vietnam’s social fabric to shreds—and six years after the end of the war, when I returned there, the Communists had still not stitched the pieces together again. They predictably blamed the dislocations on American “imperialism,” and their diagnosis was not entirely wrong.
As the war intensified in 1965, the U.S. bombing, shelling and defoliation of rural areas drove peasants from their hamlets, creating a refugee problem of immense proportions. An estimated four million men, women and children—roughly a quarter of South Vietnam’s population—fled to the fringes of cities and towns in an attempt to survive. They were shunted into makeshift camps of squalid shanties, where primitive sewers bred dysentery, malaria and other diseases. Thousands, desperate to eke out a living, drifted into Saigon, Danang, Bienhoa and Vung Tau, cities that now acquired an almost medieval cast as beggars and hawkers roamed the streets, whining and tugging at Americans for money. For grotesque contrast, no place to my mind matched the terrasse of the Continental Palace Hotel, a classic reminder of the French colonial era, where limbless Vietnamese victims of the war would crawl like crabs across the handsome tile floor to accost American soldiers, construction workers, journalists and visitors as they chatted and sipped their drinks under the ceiling fans.
The refugee influx into the cities was deliberately spurred in many instances by American strategists, who calculated that this “forced urbanization,” as they termed it, would deny peasant support to the North Vietnamese and Vietcong and thus hamper their ability to sub¬sist in the countryside. Westmoreland believed this, as did his civilian deputy in charge of “pacification,” Robert Komer, who asserted that the “process of degrading” the enemy would be accelerated by re-ducing its “population base.” The theory was ambitiously translated into practice at the beginning of 1967, when thirty thousand American troops launched Operation Cedar Falls in Binh Duong province, a Communist stronghold near the Cambodian border north of Saigon. American aircraft bombed its hamlets and denuded its rice fields and surrounding jungles with herbicides before the infantry, accompanied by tanks and bulldozers, moved in to eradicate a reported enemy web of bunkers and tunnels. The sweep resulted in an exodus of some seven thousand inhabitants.

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